“I wouldn’t go there; I’ve heard it’s racist…” I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard these kinds of statements as friends discuss travel destinations, keeping the issue of race firmly at the forefront of their minds. The world is your oyster, but as a person of colour, navigating in this racially diverse yet disproportionally divided oyster can be a tricky business.
Setting foot in a country where the nation’s skin colour is different from your own can, for some, be an unsettling experience. However, as a person of colour living in the UK, looking around a room and realising that you’re looking significantly more melanated than the other inhabitants is hardly an uncommon experience. So why does travelling as a person of colour (POC) present such unique challenges when we already face similar problems at home?
From strange looks and jokes about my “tan” in Norway to being chased by children and hearing the familiar shouts of “Muzungu’ (white person) in Uganda, in my limited travelling experiences I have certainly had my fair share of peculiar, race-related encounters. I’m a girl of mixed heritage and I feel that this can sometimes offer me a unique insight into the complexities of race and skin colour. My lighter skin led to strange looks and curiosity in predominantly black Uganda, and in majority white Norway my darker skin was seen as exotic and interesting; but in both, an understanding of what might make new comers uncomfortable had not yet been fully realised.
I’m from London and am lucky enough to have been raised in a multicultural environment where if I ever experienced issues because of the colour of my skin I was surrounded by a community of different skin colours and cultures, meaning that I rarely felt like an outsider. Although some of my travel experiences have made me feel slightly uncomfortable, I never felt personally attacked and was able to recognise that a lack of exposure to different races in these countries had led to curiosity about people who looked different, and to ignorance about how to appropriately communicate this curiosity. While England is certainly more multicultural than other countries I have visited, being stared at or receiving insensitive comments about my skin colour have been situations that I’ve faced both in London and less multicultural areas of the country. It could be argued however, that some of the experiences we as people of colour are exposed to abroad, are not always caused by a purposeful desire to offend. Ignorance and lack of exposure can lead to overt displays of racial insensitivity compared to the less blatant but often more insidious microaggressions that are more familiar at home.
Now don’t get me wrong, many POC have experienced more harmful experiences of racism abroad, but I think it’s important not to allow ourselves to be consumed by the fear surrounding these stories. We shouldn’t limit our own travel experiences with trepidation surrounding the unknown. Racism and ignorance are everywhere but perhaps by travelling more and fearing less our dream of a more egalitarian and aware world will be that much closer to reality.